Kauai Footprints: the Dark Side of "Hidden Hawaii"

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Kauai Footprints: the Dark Side of "Hidden Hawaii"
Story and photos by Michele Bigley



When a guidebook writer gets the enviable job of covering the island of Kauai, she finds the locals are not too keen on another writeup encouraging stupid tourists to do stupid things on their sacred land.


Kauai travel

Coated in perspiration, we paused to gaze at the Pacific. The ocean roared, retreated, then cast blows upon the cliffs. In the distance, a humpback breeched; an albatross skimmed the white–capped waves; sun rays streamed through plants on the Na Pali cliffs. My husband, Eddie placed a hand on my protruding belly and beamed. Even the baby seemed to somersault with glee. It was impossible not to feel the allure of Kauai, showing off her best struts like a high school cheerleader as we stood a mile into the Kalalau Trail awed, amazed and already exhausted.

Kauai waterfall

Just then, a couple with a toddler in a backpack ascended the tree root–covered trail. Red faced, with tight smiles, they asked how much longer until they reached Hanakapi'ai waterfall. Less than two miles, we warned, understanding the tantalizing pull of the cascade, the epic descent, then ascent that would require them to crawl up the unkempt trailhead that had once protected renegade lepers and still baffles local Kauai people. They grunted their gratitude and proceeded onwards only to return an hour later—to where we were still transfixed by the Pacific—to say she had twisted her ankle. I was reminded once again how Kauai remains an elusive island. She doesn't make it easy to get to know her.

And the rugged landscape is only part of the reason why.

As a guidebook writer, it is my job to dig into a destination, learn her strengths and weaknesses and then transform all the information into an easy–to–read way to find out where to eat, sleep and play—and maybe learn some history too. However, while researching my Great Destinations Kauai guide, this island and her people taught me more about sacredness than resorts, more about respect than plate lunch spots, and ultimately schooled this well–traveled writer about the nature of travel.

Let me out myself. I do not live on Kauai. I accepted the assignment to write a book about this Hawaiian island because she fascinates, lures and excites me. Like many before me, I have strong ties to the island, but I am not a local. Which is why, when I began researching my book, I reached out to transplants rather than native Hawaiians first. I imagined these lovers of the Garden Island could inform me of the real experience of being here with a perception of an outsider, so that I could offer my readers the most authentic experience they can have.

The Tourist Backlash Begins
I was shocked, however, when I had my first meeting (with a California–transplanted vacation rental proprietor) and was asked, why on earth do we need another guidebook to this island? Aren't there too many visitors already? Haven't I heard about the local backlash against guidebooks? She continued with a laundry list of places not to include in my book—including Kipu Falls, Kalalau Trail and even parts of Kokee. She instructed me to keep my head down, my mouth shut, and never try to speak pidgin. I looked around her acquired acreage, dotted with grapefruit and papaya trees, and wondered if I had it all wrong. Maybe transplants could not offer insight into a visitor's experience of the island. They are too busy fighting for their own right to be here.

Kauai beach

To understand, I have to take you back a few hundred years. The Kauai people (and really, all Hawaiians) have been colonized time and time again. It dates back to Captain Cook and his band of explorers, who introduced guns and STDs, in some cases wiping out entire villages of native people. Understandably, Hawaiian culture has a rooted distrust of outsiders.

Consider the constant flow of people trying to reap their rewards: sugar barons, Russian entrepreneurs, Filipinos, Portuguese, Americans, and now pot–bellied lobster–hued couples wearing matching aloha shirts and saying back in America, we do this. Then imagine that you are a Hawaiian—which these days means you are a stir fry of cultures—trying to survive here. You have a number of factors working against you. First off, land prices have escalated with the slew of mainlanders purchasing beachfront properties, forcing locals to have to find affordable housing in Vegas and Oregon of all places. Then, throw in the lack of jobs. With the sugar and farming industry going kaput, the best job a local can get—besides becoming one of the hundred real estate agents—is in the tourism industry.

This creates an interesting dynamic. Local people, who take pride in their island, are being forced to work for folks who march in and out, bulldozing sacred sites and then charging more outsiders ridiculous prices to sleep there. These same local people, who cater to the whims of those affluent aloha shirted vacationers, have to encounter tourists on their days off hiking trails they are not prepared to hike and jumping off cliffs they are not fit to jump from.






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